Winner of the 2009 Atlantic Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2010 PEI Book Award for Poetry
When I was an English lit student at UPEI one of my favorite professors was Brent MacLaine. He has a genuine passion for literature that is infectious. Shades of Green is his third collection of poetry and at this point in his writing career his most successful, winning both the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the PEI Book Award. MacLaine’s writing is very reminiscent of poetry from the early part of the 20th century and the Confederation poets; many of his poems are homages to the Earth and very heavy on exploring nature. This book is the most visual and vivid of all of his collections. The way he uses the descriptions of colours, sights, and sounds in all of these poems, with both rural or urban settings, is intoxicating.
The poems are fairly traditional in structure and for the most part follow the time tested style of classic lyrics and odes. As you progress through the book you are taken through the landscapes of Prince Edward Island, examining mostly rural life (farming, wild life, etc.), and also walked through urban jungles. The urban poems are interesting, the tone is very similar to the rural ones, as I read these pieces I felt as if the author was trying to apply rural sensibilities to the big city. This was very well done.
The book is punctuated with beautiful semi-abstract oil paintings, which I think were done by MacLaine himself but don’t quote on me that. My favorite piece is the title poem which opens the book, “Shades of Green”. The first stanza draws you right in, especially if you read it this time of year:
First seen is last year’s green,
unsheathed by melting snow –
a dead blade stabbing into memory,
a tarnished green. Museum green.
Brent MacLaine is definitely one of PEI’s best contemporary writers, along with his co-worker Richard Lemm. Shades of Green is a great representation of both landscape poetry and Prince Edward Island as a whole. He writes with a painter’s eye; I think anyone who loves the rolling green landscapes of PEI would enjoy Shades of Green, not just the usual readers of poetry.
Winner of the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize
That Night We Were Ravenous is the fourth book of poetry and follow-up to the immensely successful debut novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright by Canada’s third Parliamentary Poet Laureate John Steffler. Steffler is known for his incredible ability to capture a beautiful landscape down to its most minute detail and touch all five senses in just a few short lines. This collection is no different. We as readers are taken on a trip through both urban and rural Newfoundland, Southern Ontario, and Greece. John Steffler describes the outdoors with the same type of sharp eye A.Y. Jackson used to paint it.
Reviewing a collection of poems is an inherently difficult thing to do. Unlike looking at a novel or a play you have dozens of individual pieces to look at instead of one longer coherent piece. So in keeping with this thought I think the best thing to do is look at the overall themes of the book and the effect it would have on a reader. The title That Night We Were Ravenous instills a feeling of deep passion and excitement. That basically sums up the feeling you get from his collection whether it is something as simple as the edge of a forest in “Start of a Trail” or something as large as the Greek countryside in “On the Track of the Megalithic Burial Rings”. The first sequence in the book, “In a Makeshift Blind,” is hands down the most powerful and my favorite part of the book. This sequence takes us out on an outdoor tour of Newfoundland in all of its natural splendor much like in Steffler’s most famous work The Grey Islands. “Cedar Cove” and “Long Point” are great examples of the points I have made. Steffler’s verse simply can’t be matched by any other living Canadian poet when describing nature:
I walk that windy spit to its vanishing point
where opposing surfs merge
where Port au Port Bay and its sky and its weather
lose to the open gulf
and the slick whittled rock I stand on plunges
a titanic eel
The final poem of the book is the title poem “That Night We Were Ravenous”; this is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read by a contemporary Canadian poet. A man is driving late at night from Stephenville on a fall evening; he looks up at the moon and starts to reflect on “her” beauty, her power, her innocence, and her effect on all who live below her. The poems final two lines are a fitting conclusion to the collection: “That night we slept deeper than ever/Our dreams bounded after her like excited hounds.”
Reading an extended collection of poetry is certainly not everyone’s first choice; but it can be extremely rewarding and very pleasurable. As a casual reader while you go through a 100 plus page collection you do not need to focus on deeply interpreting these pieces or in some cases even understanding their meaning. Often times just reading a poem and allowing the beautiful images to overtake your imagination is more than enough. John Steffler’s That Night We Were Ravenous is a great collection for even the most casual of poetry readers. It has the stunning imagery of an Al Purdy and the great narrative qualities of a Michael Ondaatje.